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Life Is a Drag--and Fun : Santa Ana Man Is a Pioneer of the High-Speed Sport

TIMES STAFF WRITER

They see Creighton Hunter navigating the otherwise tranquil pavement of Riverside Drive in his characteristic black nylon jacket and custom-built powder-blue ’34 Roadster.

“I think it’s beautiful,” said Rick Martel, a neighbor who lives across the street.

The only thing unusual is Hunter’s age. At 75, he is arguably Orange County’s oldest active hot rodder.

He is also one of the major pioneers of a multimillion-dollar sport.

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In 1950, Hunter and two partners opened the world’s first legal drag strip operating on a regular basis.

Located on what is now a runway at John Wayne International Airport, the strip--called Santa Ana Drags--was an overnight success, inspiring hundreds of imitators throughout the country.

By the time it closed in 1959, drag racing had begun its evolution from an illegal street activity to an internationally recognized professional motor sport commanding millions of spectators and millions of dollars.

“He and his partners are certainly the fathers of organized drag racing,” said Greg Sharp, director of historical services for the 80,000-member National Hot Rod Assn.

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“They got the kids off the streets and made it legal. It legitimized the sport.”

Indeed, it was on the streets of Orange County that Hunter became enthralled with the activity that would later become the stuff of Hollywood and play a significant role in shaping the region’s culture.

“I got my first car in 1936,” he said, recalling the 1932 Model B Ford his parents bought him for $100 while he was a student at Santa Ana High School. It was the first of about 50 hot rods that Hunter has built or owned.

In those early years, Hunter said, he and his friends raced illegally along city streets. “There was always some guy mouthing off that his car was faster than yours,” he said, “so you had to try it.”

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After a stint in the military during World War II, Hunter went into the oil distribution business with his father.

In 1950, he teamed up with two customers to open Santa Ana Drags.

“We’d gotten run out of a couple of places,” recalled C.J. Hart, 84, one of Hunter’s former partners who now lives in Lake Elsinore. “So we rented a strip at the Orange County airport and it just took off from there.”

The operation was simple.

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For $1, anybody with a hot rod could race it on the mile-long strip that was open every weekend.

And for an admission of 50 cents, spectators lining the strip could watch the race from the hoods of their cars.

The first race attracted about 75 spectators and 25 entries, Hunter recalled. Within a few years, he said, as many as 15,000 people were lining up to watch the races every Sunday.

Only one fatality marred the drag strip’s nine-year history. In the early 1950s, a flywheel shot off a car and struck a spectator in the chest.

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And Hunter’s racing career ended abruptly in 1956 after a car he was driving at 150 mph crashed and burned, sending him into a coma for two weeks. But he kept working at the drag strip until an expansion of the airport forced its closure in 1959.

He continued tinkering with hot rods and today spends an average of four hours a day in his garage.

“He’s never changed,” said Mike Chrisman, a 40-year-old dragster whose dad, now 66, used to race at Hunter’s drag strip. “People know of him. He’s like right from the ‘50s. He’s kept his lifestyle the same.”


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